Citizen Involvement in Mecklenburg County
Background: As part of its 2008-2010 Strategic Business Plan, the Mecklenburg Board of County Commissioners directed that a study be conducted to develop recommended goals, strategies, performance measures and accountabilities to support the Board?s vision for citizen involvement in community governance.
Board Vision: “We will have a local government that is highly efficient, effective, accountable, and inclusive…. Partnerships between government, the private sector, the faith community and others will bring together people from diverse backgrounds to address and solve community problems.”
Although the Board?s vision has been reflected through its Community & Corporate Scorecard (see box below), there is no defined business strategy and no accountabilities for achieving the desired result other than having various advisory committees appointed by the Board.
Community & Corporate Scorecard Link:
Desired Result: Enhance Citizen Involvement
Corporate Strategy: Seek citizen participation in policy development and decision-making
> Advisory Committee Diversity
> Citizen Satisfaction with Input Opportunities
Having citizen advisory committees remains important, but there are many other equally and/or more effective methods of enhancing citizen involvement. Based on available (and somewhat limited) performance measures, the level of citizen satisfaction with opportunities to provide input is below acceptable performance standards (red light) for the last two years, the only
years that citizen satisfaction in this area has been measured.
Study Findings: Funded by private grants with in-kind support from Mecklenburg County, a study conducted by The Lee Institute identified several findings regarding citizen involvement in Mecklenburg County. A summary of the key findings are below (detailed findings are provided in Attachment 1):
The primary relationship between government and residents is that of service vendor/customer. The strong dynamic of this relationship inhibits the much needed relationship of residents as “owners” of the community and government as the “agent” of the owners
Many people don?t believe their involvement will affect change
Mecklenburg County?s current approach to citizen involvement is insufficient to achieve the Board?s vision because involvement options are limited and inconvenient Citizen involvement begins with public awareness
People want to be involved and engaged in their community and government but need help doing so
People generally define their community as their neighborhood, so citizen involvement activities must included targeted efforts at the neighborhood level
A Vision for Engaging Residents
Based on the review of current thinking and scholarship on citizen engagement, along with
considering the key findings from the study, a four-part continuum of engagement is being utilized to organize and provide structure to the proposed business strategy and implementation plan. The concepts of these four increasingly connected levels – beginning with Informing and Consulting, and concluding with Collaborating and Empowering – are further described in the plan in Attachment D.
Although Mecklenburg County has made a significant investment in engaging residents through Informing and Consulting (which will be continued and strengthened in this business plan), there has been a limited focus on and an investment in the more intensive levels of engagement of Collaborating and Empowering. However, citizen engagement through Collaboration and Empowerment provides the greatest potential for Mecklenburg County to help residents improve their lives and their community. These aspects of citizen engagement also create a two-way relationship between residents and government that is necessary to build and sustain effective governance within the community. This is a stronger partnership than the prevalent one-way relationship where residents primarily serve as “customer” of the “vendor” government?s services. Although this customer-vendor relationship remains important, it is only one aspect of the multi-faceted partnership that should exist between local government
and its residents.
Consequently, this business strategy and plan for citizen engagement – called MeckConnect — creates a comprehensive systems approach to increase the quantity and enhance the quality of engagement along all four parts of the citizen engagement continuum.
MeckConnect Mission: To build and sustain effective participation of Mecklenburg County residents in the governance of their community.
Core Principles: These principles will guide all Mecklenburg County citizen involvement/community engagement efforts.
Mecklenburg residents are owners of the community
Mecklenburg residents have a right and responsibility to participate in the governance of the community, and are willing and able to do so
Comprehensive citizen engagement results in better governance of the community Residents from all areas and representing all facets of life in Mecklenburg County must have ample opportunity and access to participate in the governance of the community
Mecklenburg residents have the right to choose how to participate in the governance of the community
Mecklenburg County government has a responsibility to foster, encourage and enable citizen engagement by offering multiple, convenient ways to participate through the use of technology and in person (“high tech and high touch”).
Citizen involvement is a learned value that requires ongoing efforts for sustainability In general, Mecklenburg residents consider “the community” as their neighborhood. The impact of increased citizen involvement and its benefits can and will be measured
Mecklenburg residents consider themselves owners of the community
Mecklenburg residents believe citizen engagement is their right and responsibility Mecklenburg residents are satisfied with the variety, ease and quality of citizen engagement opportunities
Mecklenburg residents are satisfied that their participation in citizen engagement efforts made a meaningful impact on the community.
Mecklenburg residents participate in citizen engagement opportunities
Mecklenburg residents actively vote in elections
Business Strategies: MeckConnect will employ the following business strategies to achieve the desired results identified above. Below this list of business strategies are supporting key tactics, tools and primary accountabilities for each strategy.
1. Diverse, Network-Based Recruitment
2. Involve Residents Numerous Ways
3. Institutionalize and Sustain Citizen Involvement/Community Engagement
4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Key Tactics, Tools and Accountabilities:
1. Diverse, Network-Based Recruitment
Recruit residents by working with existing community groups, other civic networks, organizations and through current government efforts to connect people with each other and with local government
Create methods to involve demographically balanced groups of residents reflective of the impacted community
Tools: Recruitment must be focused, intensive and ongoing. Tools will include extending ongoing, broad invitations to encourage participation. Particular () emphasis will be made to recruit participants a one-on-one basis and other targeted methods such as letters, flyers and outreach to existing community groups (e.g., books clubs, faith- based organizations, senior clubs, etc.)
Accountability: This is a shared accountability for all leadership (e.g., Board, executives, department directors) and staff. A key accountability for the Citizen Involvement Coordinator (see Strategy 3) is monitoring involvement outreach methods and providing consultation on best practices to generate diverse involvement.
2. Involve Residents Numerous Ways
Use the Public Involvement Spectrum of the International Association of Public
Participation (see Inform-Consult-Engage-Collaborate-Empower boxes below) to design and provide multiple forms of citizen involvement opportunities that range from “high-tech to high-touch
Develop and Sustain Citizen Volunteer Program (see Collaborate below). Develop Neighborhood-based Councils (see Collaborate below).
Inform: Provide Mecklenburg residents with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the issues, policy, problems, alternatives and solutions regarding the community and its governance.
Tools: Ongoing communications plan, including targeted and mass communication (web sites, direct mail, TV/video production, PSAs, news releases, speakers? bureau, neighborhood meetings, social e-media).
Accountability: Public Service & Information Department (PSI) has primary accountability for developing information content and delivery systems, in consultation with Manager?s Office and department leaders.
Consult: Create opportunities for Mecklenburg residents to supply decision makers with feedback and analysis on issues, policy, problems, alternatives and solutions regarding the community and its governance.
Tools: Implement multiple methods of consulting with residents and others, tailoring the method to include high-tech and high-touch activities, such as community surveys, department/agency surveys, focus groups, workshops, study circles, neighborhood and public meetings, online polling, social e-media. Accountability: There is a shared accountability at executive and department levels to implement as appropriate throughout the organization and community. Key elements (e.g., community survey) will have specific accountability for implementation (e.g., Office of Strategic Organizational Improvement has the primary accountability for developing, implementing and reporting on community survey). PSI also has accountability in developing content and delivery of information as part of this strategy.
Collaborate: Create opportunities to partner with Mecklenburg residents that enable residents to be directly involved in the delivery of County services as well as being involved in each aspect of community governance, such as developing alternatives and solutions for consideration by decision makers.
Tools: Developing and sustaining volunteering. Having residents volunteer to help support and/or deliver County services requires considerable planning prior to implementing (see Attachment A for details).
Tools: These tactics include ongoing activities that enable proactive identification of community issues, concerns, problems and solutions, as well as establishing short-term initiatives that are issue-specific. Tools include standing citizen advisory committees, facilitated consensus-building meetings, citizen task teams, participatory decision-making, multi-stakeholder negotiation, neighborhood- based citizen councils. The neighborhood-based citizen council tactic is an important feature that requires considerable planning prior to implementing (see Attachment B for details).
Accountability: This is a shared accountability at executive and department levels to implement as appropriate throughout the organization and community.
Additional accountability will fall to the Citizen Involvement Coordinator (see below) in developing these methods with the participation of executive leadership and department directors and other staff.
Empower: Create opportunities for Mecklenburg residents to make final decisions in community governance matters.
Tools: Initially, the tactics for the Empower strategy include the primary existing method of decision making by residents – voting. However, other communities have used other methods such as citizen juries (outside the criminal justice/legal system) and delegated decisions to address community problems. These methods should be explored and considered on a case-by-case basis. Other tactics and tools include facilitated consensus-busing meetings or participatory decision-making meetings enabling neighborhood-based citizen councils and/or neighborhood organizations making decisions about neighborhood goals and priorities.
Accountability: The Mecklenburg County Elections Office is accountability for open elections, consistent with North Carolina law. Accountability for additional methods for resident decisions making will vary depending on the circumstances and method developed/implemented. Likely this will involve shared accountability at the Board and/or executive levels. It also may involve accountability at the department director level and with the Citizen Involvement Coordinator.
3. Institutionalize and Sustain Citizen Involvement/Community Engagement
Establish the “Mecklenburg Way” of citizen engagement/community engagement, including oversight/accountability and management structure to support the business strategies.
Structure and Management
Executive Oversight: The Scorecard desired result of “Enhanced Citizen Involvement” is contained in the Board’s Effective & Efficient Government (EEG) Focus Area. As a result, this desired result is part of the accountability of the Effective & Efficient Government Focus Area Leadership Team (EEG FALT), with direct leadership and accountability assigned to a General Manager. Additional executive oversight is provided by the County’s Executive Team (County Manager and General Managers).
Management/Operational Oversight: Consistent with many EEG goals, management and operational accountability is shared by all department/agency directors. This includes coordinating and providing support of advisory committees and other citizen engagement outreach activities. In addition, specific management/operational responsibilities include the following:
The Public Service & Information Department (PSI) is accountable for developing information content and content delivery systems, as well as managing these content delivery systems. These services will support department/agency citizen engagement activities, as well as citizen engagement coordination provided within the County Manager’s Office (see below).
Establish Citizen Involvement Coordinator function.
Citizen Involvement Coordinator: Although many elements of citizen engagement will be implemented at the department/agency level, there is a
need for coordination of these efforts to ensure follow-through and consistency with (for implementing) Mecklenburg County’s citizen engagement principles, strategies, tactics and accountabilities. In addition, there is a significant need to champion the organization’s citizen engagement efforts as a priority, and to coordinate the development of the organization’s capacity to foster, convene and facilitate citizen engagement. Another responsibility of the citizen engagement coordinator will be to develop partnerships and alliances with community organizations (see below).
In addition, two major initiatives – volunteering and neighborhood-based citizen councils — will require the dedicated attention and resources of the citizen engagement coordinator. If resources permit, the citizen engagement coordinator will be a full-time position and responsibility. Given the strategic nature of these responsibilities and the need to coordinate across all departments/agencies, this position should be within the County Manager’s Office, with a strong affiliation with PSI.
Citizen Involvement Coordinator Key Responsibilities:
> Champion citizen involvement and engagement throughout the organization
> Oversee development of neighborhood-based councils
> Oversee development and implementation of Volunteer Services Program, including a volunteer worker policy for the County
> In partnership with PS&I, plan and coordinate special events to raise awareness of and recruit residents for citizen engagement opportunities, with a focus on developing diverse involvement (i.e., representative of the community)
> Develop citizen involvement performance measures and targets
> Liaison with PS&I citizen involvement/outreach to monitor outreach communications and provide consultation on best practices
> Develop and leverage new and existing partnerships and alliances with other
organizations to build an “institutional community engagement network.”
> Implement methods of collecting and analyzing performance data to determine the effectiveness of citizen involvement strategies
Establish citizen involvement/community engagement processes that are appropriate, widely known and followed consistently throughout the organization (see Process Model below).
The Citizen Involvement/Community Engagement Process Model
Identify project or activity
Consult with Citizen Engagement Coordinator
Assess potential community impact of the project or activity
No potential impact
If no consultation or engagement is warranted, it is recommended that a record of this decision be
Plan to meet minimum legislative requirements
Identify key stakeholders who need to be involved
Assess level of engagement needed
Identify tools and methods for the engagement
Develop community engagement plan
Consult with Citizen Engagement Coordinator as needed
Implement the plan
Evaluate success against measures in the business plan
Adapted from the Minneapolis, MN
Community Engagement Process Model Guidebook
Develop and leverage new and existing partnerships and alliances with other
organizations to build an “institutional community engagement network.”
Partnerships & Alliances
MeckConnect began as a partnership between Mecklenburg County and
The Lee Institute, with grant funding provided by Foundation for the Carolinas, Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation, and The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Ideally, these partnerships will be sustained in some matter (e.g., funding, data sharing, etc.). In addition, there are opportunities for partnerships and alliances between Mecklenburg County and the following organizations and others:
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Community Relations Committee Center for Civic Leadership (Foundation For the Carolinas) Community Building Initiative
City of Charlotte and other Mecklenburg municipalities
Mecklenburg Ministries and other faith community organizations
Charlotte-Mecklenburg Planning Commission
Establish performance measures and targets, and implement methods of collecting and analyzing performance data to determine the effectiveness of the strategies above.
Tools: Satisfaction and awareness surveys of those who participated in engagement activities as well as the overall community will be the primary tactic used in gathering data to measure performance against desired results and specific performance targets. Data on participation levels and voter turnout will be collected and/or reported by SOI based on availability of data from other sources (e.g., participation rosters, Board of Elections Office).
Accountability: The Office of Strategic Organizational Improvement (SOI) will develop survey tools and oversee any community-wide surveys. Surveys of participants in specific engagement activities will be the accountability of those charged with managing these activities (see Structure and Management below), with consultation by SOI staff.
4. Communicate, Communicate, Communicate
Implement multiple methods of mass and targeted communicating and consulting with residents and others, tailoring the method to include high-tech and high-touch activities. This includes communicating via the web technology (e.g., web pages, Facebook, Twitter, blogs), news media relations (news stories, PSAs), print materials (brochures, direct mail), advertising, and in person (speakers’ bureau, neighborhood/community meetings, focus groups, study circles, community surveys and more.
Some elements of MeckConnect begin in early January, 2010. This includes leveraging,
strengthening and expanding existing practices and resources to inform and consult with Mecklenburg residents. For example, on January 6, 2010, the County Manager began meeting with various groups throughout the community to discuss the same type of information he is providing the Board regarding the current state of and outlook for the community. In addition, these meetings offer an opportunity for the County Manager and County staff to hear directly from residents about what is going on in their lives and neighborhoods and to learn what they consider important, as well as to find out how residents want to be more involved in local government and their community.
Consistent with the MeckConnect findings, these meeting are being coordinated by the County?s Public Service & Information Department (PSI) — in partnership with all County departments — to occur where people are already gathering (i.e., intact groups), such as neighborhood association meetings, advisory committee meetings, civic clubs, as a few examples. In addition, PSI staff is using electronic social media and other means of communicating with residents to inform them of the meetings, what was discussed (high- tech/high touch), and to solicit additional meeting opportunities.
Still, full implementation of this plan requires Mecklenburg County to enhance the collaborative form of citizen engagement in more substantive ways. This involves implementing two major new initiatives (Develop & Sustain Volunteering; and Establishing & Sustaining Neighborhood-based Citizen Councils). A first step in this effort will be designating a Citizen Involvement Coordinator to assume accountability for the day-to-day implementation of the key elements of this plan.
A critical component is the support of the Board of County Commissioners and senior management of the County. The elected body must support citizen engagement and the resources needed to develop and sustain engagement at all levels (inform, consult, collaborate
& empower). The first step in this support is approving changes to the Board?s Community & Corporate Scorecard to add the desired outcomes and strategies proposed in this document. Furthermore, the Board would need to support the County Manager in assigning accountability and resources to this effort.
Attachment A: Unified Volunteer Services
Developing and Sustaining Volunteering
A MeckConnect Strategy
The primary purpose of MeckConnect is to enhance citizen involvement in a variety of ways and levels of intensity with Mecklenburg County government and within the community.
One of the key strategies of MeckConnect is to involve residents in numerous ways with Mecklenburg County government and other aspects of the community. This strategy includes developing and sustaining volunteering as an important way to involve residents. Currently, Mecklenburg County has limited resources involved in recruiting and managing volunteering (primarily in the Park and Recreation Department and the Department of Social Services). In fact, Mecklenburg County does not have a unified or coordinated approach to developing and sustaining volunteering throughout the organization. Such an approach would build on the successful ways volunteering has been accomplished within the organization and expand it to apply to all areas of Mecklenburg County government.
It is important to recognize that recruiting and managing volunteers is a significant task that requires specific expertise and uses best practices. When managed well, volunteering can be a positive asset and experience for both the organization and the volunteers. However, if it not managed properly, volunteering can do more harm than good, again for both the organization and/or the volunteers. As a result, developing and sustaining volunteering as a key element of MeckConnect requires and thoughtful and coordinated approach that leverages expertise in recruiting and managing volunteers and uses proved practices that enable successful volunteer programs.
The County benefits from volunteer involvement by:
Extending the County’s ability to provide services effectively and efficiently. Enhancing residents’ knowledge and understanding of County government’s responsibilities, services and results
Building, expanding and strengthening the relationship Mecklenburg County has with its residents
Accessing the expertise of residents and receiving input and feedback from residents on
County services and operations
Connecting residents with each other in activities that help improve their lives and the community
Benefits to volunteers include:
The opportunity to develop skills and gain experience
An increased understanding of County government and the opportunity to influence its effectiveness
Personal ownership and satisfaction in helping the community
Meeting and building relationships with other residents
Establishing Unified Volunteer Services
It is estimated that only two in five volunteers become involved in volunteering at their own volition. Therefore, most people volunteer because they have been asked (recruited) to volunteer. In addition, most successful volunteer programs in large organizations achieve this success through a unified approach. This unified approach includes coordinated volunteer drives and awareness efforts. It also includes a coordinated clearinghouse for all volunteer opportunities within the organization. This clearinghouse is vital because it provides one clearly defined access point for people to volunteer and be placed in volunteer opportunities that suit their interests and abilities to effectively support the needs of the organization. Not only does this provide consistency in recruiting and managing volunteers, it also enables more efficient and effective partnerships and coordination with volunteer programs outside of the organization (e.g., Red Cross).
Below is the mission and desired results of Mecklenburg County?s Unified Volunteer Services:
To enable Mecklenburg County residents to be involved in the delivery of County services and
addressing community needs.
Mecklenburg residents are satisfied with volunteer opportunities provided by Mecklenburg
Mecklenburg residents are satisfied that their participation in Mecklenburg County volunteer activities has made a meaningful impact on the community.
The size of Mecklenburg County”s volunteer force is comparable or better than other
government and/or non-profit organizations (adjusted for population, etc.).
Structure, Resources and Action Steps:
The next steps necessary to establish unified volunteer services involve the following:
Defining the structure and resources required for these services to be implemented
Conducting an initial assessment of current volunteer opportunities throughout the county
Creating a leadership team within County staff to support a unified, comprehensive approach to volunteer Involvement.
It is proposed that the Citizen Involvement Coordinator function established to oversee implementation of the MeckConnect Plan be charged with defining and recommending the appropriate structure, resources and action steps to establish unified volunteer services consistent with the background, mission and desired results articulated above. This charge would be one of the priority responsibilities for the Citizen Involvement Coordinator.
Attachment B: Neighborhood-Based Councils
A MeckConnect Strategy
Creating an active program of Neighborhood-Based Councils is a long-term, comprehensive
strategy to directly engage the residents of Mecklenburg County in the governance of their county. The establishment of Neighborhood-Based Councils is grounded in the following core principles of MeckConnect:
Mecklenburg residents are owners of the community
Mecklenburg residents have a right and responsibility to participate in the governance of their community, and are willing and able to do so
Residents from all areas and aspects of Mecklenburg County must have ample opportunity and access to participate in the governance of the community
Citizen involvement is a learned value that requires ongoing cultivation efforts for sustainability
In general, Mecklenburg residents consider “the community” as their neighborhood
Proposed General Structure
Currently, Mecklenburg County is composed of a large number of distinct neighborhoods,
often formed around Homeowners? Associations. The City of Charlotte works closely with neighborhoods through its existing services: Department of Neighborhoods, the Neighborhood Watch Program of CMPD and the Park and Recreation neighborhood-based advisory councils. The proposed main goal of the newly recommended Neighborhood-Based Councils is NOT to create a new structure but to build on and extend existing structures to provide enhanced opportunities for people to be engaged with Mecklenburg County at their neighborhood level.
Neighborhood-Based Councils would have four primary responsibilities:
Pro-actively identify areas of focus for collaborative efforts by government and residents
Problem solve with a wide variety of County departments on specific neighborhood issues, concerns and problems
Provide input to County staff and Board of County Commissioners on key policy issues identified by the County including establishing funding and community priorities
Encourage increased ownership for neighborhood issues, ultimately strengthening community bonds and relationships
Serve as a pre-existing resource for the County to involve in the case of an emergency –
whether that emergency is a neighborhood specific one or broader county-wide issue
Neighborhood-Based Councils would have the following structure:
Existing homeowner associations could also function as the neighborhood council New neighborhood councils could comprise 5 -8 members recruited through open enrollment and with open involvement
The Citizen Involvement Coordinator of the County acts as a liaison among the City
Council and County Commission elected officials and staff, including department heads
and the public at large
Councils meet a minimum of three times a year for a structured discussion on key public policy issues – i.e. input on budget priorities along with input on perhaps two key issues identified by Mecklenburg County Commissioners
Information is sent on a regular basis from the Citizen Involvement Coordinator and or the Public Information office to members of Neighborhood-Based Councils concerning key issues. A regular process of connection and communication using the MeckConnect principle of combining “high-tech” with “high-touch” approaches
Neighborhood-Based Councils are empowered to access a wide-variety of County staff resources including the option to request County staff meet with the Councils regarding specific issues
Identifying members to serve on councils who are not simply the “usual suspects? Ensuring that the Board of County Commissioners and County staff are committed to involving Council members in the design and delivery of County services and in the governance of the community
Nurturing the development of Councils while helping to maintain their independence and self-reliance
Developing and implementing a multi-faceted ongoing communication and outreach strategy
Attachment C: MeckConnect Summary Report
MeckConnect Study Summary Report
The first phase of MeckConnect was a pilot project to test ways to increase citizen engagement in their local government, by focusing on the relationship between residents and Mecklenburg County government. Local governments have the most direct impact on their citizens. The trend in emphasizing customer services and efficiency in government has influenced the often one-dimensional customer/service vendor relationship between residents and county government. Media such as television and internet have made it possible for citizens to be informed without any direct involvement in the agencies by which they are governed and served. Local governments are missing out by not engaging the talents and intellect of
members of the community, who are over shadowed by single-issue advocates and special interest groups.
The first phase of MeckConnect was conducted through a partnership between The Lee
Institute and Mecklenburg County government with funding the Z Smith Reynolds Foundation, The Foundation for the Carolinas and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Beginning in June, 2007, a discovery and research phase was launched, including convening a
strong design committee to consider appropriate civic engagement strategies. During this research and discussion phase, the effort shifted from a traditional top-down, problem-centered approach to a more grassroots, investigative one. Originally, the idea was to explore three different areas of the County and to use geography as the lens for creating the civic
engagement strategies. In an effort to take full advantage of a true research and development phase, a change was made to keep geography constant and recruit people more through the lens of engagement and connection. After the design team completed its work, a planning team (consisting of Lee Institute staff and County Staff) met regularly. In a community like
Charlotte-Mecklenburg where there is great civic investment and participation, could a connection be discovered to that successful tradition to help County government increase participation with its citizens? A process was designed to gather this data beginning in December of 2007. Discussion groups were held between February 2008 and May 2008.
The MeckConnect pilot sought to involve groups of people already engaged in the community
who would represent diverse communities and constituencies. Most of the pilot?s engagement efforts focused on a census tract east of Charlotte. A key development that emerged from MeckConnect Planning Team meetings was the importance of focusing on individuals who were already engaged in their community.
There were four types of groups identified.
1. A Very Engaged Group: a pre-existing group that is already engaged in work with local government. Will be identified through County and City departments. (Examples: Citizen?s advisory panels, neighborhood organizations)
2. A Group that is engaged in working towards the public/common good but not with government. (Example: religious groups)
3. A Group that is engaged with each other but not directed towards public good. (Example: book clubs)
4. A Virtual Group consisting of individuals primarily connected through blogs, message boards or other online communities. (Example: Charlotte Mommies)
The MeckConnect Planning Team researched and conceptualized models for citizen engagement and strategies for field-based data gathering. Then, a set of “discussion groups” were organized and facilitated. The facilitation model was similar to that of a focus group; dialogue was encouraged around a small set of questions during a 60-90 minute meeting. The qualitative data from the focus groups were analyzed using an axial coding process. As is true with all focus groups, it is important to remember that the qualitative data cannot be extrapolated to quantitative outcomes. For example, it is not accurate to make quantitative assumptions concerning the types of people who participated in the focus groups.
In order to collect a set of quantitative data, paper surveys were administered to discussion group participants. Questions were developed based on Susan Jakes? Community Assets Survey.
Results from the MeckConnect Community Assets Questionnaire were analyzed at the conclusion of the discussion groups. Highlights include:
Respondents reported feeling more able to affect change and work collaboratively for the greater good within their immediate neighborhood. Average responses to the question, “I know I can make a difference in my community” were consistently higher on the neighborhood level as compared to the community of Mecklenburg County as a whole.
Neighborhood leaders seem more accessible to – and cooperative with – their constituents. However, respondents, on average, reported a greater lack of strong leadership at the neighborhood level than the county level.
Responses to the question, “I know how to work with others to solve problems”
consistently scored higher with neighborhood communities than the County
community. These responses seem to support the discussion groups? theme that there is a lack of understanding about ways individuals can engage with, and affect change in, local government.
MeckConnect also precipitated the creation of MecklenBlog, a blog that was used in conjunction with this pilot and is being considered by County staff as an ongoing aspect of its two-way communication with residents (and anyone accessing the County web site). Anecdotal data indicates that this has been helpful in increasing feelings of “ownership” of government and signifies the County?s support of participatory governance.
A discrete set of resources and information – both local and national- have been identified which will be of specific help as Mecklenburg County considers the continuation of this civic engagement plan. In addition, these resources will help inform other civic engagement efforts.
What Did People Say?
Being involved and engaged in the community is a widely held value for many different types of people who invest their time in many different types of groups. However, the importance of being involved and committed for most people relates to their efforts in the civic, i.e. volunteer, arena. Few people identified engagement as it relates to their connection to local government.
In addition, when asked specifically about citizenship, few participants connected a view of being a good citizen with direct participation and relationship to government. Many discussion group participants, in fact, reported a lack of understanding of ways to get involved with government.
For most respondents, community equated to their neighborhood or where they lived. This is significant when designing a future scaled-up approach that the strategies may need to be focused at that micro-level. This also impacts on the selection of locations for civic engagement. Many people identified the fact that government often asks people to come to them in order to be engaged (i.e., come to a public meeting) as a barrier.
Because there is such a focus and commitment to the civic arena for people who are engaged, the active civic institutions are potential partners.
Participants were clear that becoming more connected to government would have to relate to a high possibility/probability for demonstrated change. People who are engaged expect for their investment to have a real impact.
Overview of Findings
1. Current Approach to Engaging Citizens with County Government is Insufficient
“Vending Machine” relationship (i.e. residents “put-in” their tax dollars and receive
Involvement and engagement options are limited and inconvenient People don?t believe their involvement will affect change Engagement is organized at macro-level
2. Community = Neighborhood
People consider their neighborhood as their “community”
People seek involvement at this level, except with local government Community involvement is personal (e.g., “helping my neighbors and my neighborhood”)
People often get involved because someone asks
County government not seen as connecting at neighborhood level
3. Involvement and engagement Begins with Awareness
People need more than information to understand the potential impact on them People often unaware of how to engage with local government (and/or don?t like the options)
Too often, outreach is through news media and other mass communication
People use technology as means to gather information and to connect in person
4. To Be Engaged, People Want:
To be asked to participate
Multiple, convenient ways to engage
Safe, convenient place to gather
To connect with people in person on something meaningful
To believe their involvement will affect change they can witness
Local government to bring people together
MeckConnect Phase I Conclusions
In reviewing the findings from the MeckConnect study, several key conclusions can be found
which have implications for the future citizen engagement work in Mecklenburg County and in other government municipalities:
Citizen engagement is a learned value that must be practiced; therefore, it is important for government to actively embrace the concept as an important value inherent in all the work that is done
In order to truly engage citizens, a more comprehensive and intensive approach is needed
Engagement efforts should be focused at neighborhood level
Communicate, communicate, communicate
Local government can leverage partnerships to enhance citizen involvement
Attachment D: Citizen Engagement Continuum
Citizen Engagement Continuum
Range of Involvement for Citizens in MeckConnect
Involvement Definition Strategies, Techniques Inform Provide Mecklenburg residents
with balanced and objective information to assist them in understanding the issues, policy, problems, alternatives and solutions regarding the community and its governance Ongoing communications plan with targeted and mass
communication using: web sites direct mail
news releases speakers? bureau neighborhood meetings social e-media Consult Create opportunities for
Mecklenburg residents to supply decision makers with feedback and analysis on issues, policy, problems, alternatives and
solutions regarding the community and its governance Implement multiple methods of consulting with residents
and others, tailoring the method to include high-tech and high-touch activities, such as:
department/agency surveys focus groups neighborhood and public meetings
online polling social e-media Collaborate Create opportunities to partner
with Mecklenburg residents that enable residents to be directly involved in the delivery of County services as well as being involved in each aspect of community governance, such as developing alternatives and solutions for consideration by decision makers Techniques include:
Developing and Sustaining Volunteering
Neighborhood-based Councils Empower Create opportunities for
Mecklenburg residents to make final decisions in community governance matters Techniques include:
citizen juries (outside the criminal justice/legal system)
delegated decisions to address community problems